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Lighting Out for the Territories

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January 796 UC, Phezzan

Reinhard’s task of spying on the Earth Church was not a simple one. Although he had plenty of tools at his disposal, the High Commissioner’s office didn’t have a lot of staff, or at least staff that Reinhard trusted to take care of the kind of tasks that he wanted to assign.

Under ideal circumstances, he would have already had an “in” at the Earth Church, someone who had been infiltrating the organization for years. Of course, there was no such person, at least on the Alliance payroll. Religion, as a whole, was supremely uninteresting to the Alliance government, especially since the largest religion was the polytheistic, decentralized mishmash of the Empire’s state religion that was carried along to the Alliance in the general way that human migration carries religion across borders. There were a few holdover, even older religions, but their devouts were small and few in number. The Earth Church had perhaps only surpassed the largest of those in membership within the past decade or so. Since there had been no centralized religion until the rise of the Earth Church with hierarchy, growing membership, and staying power, the Alliance had never developed an instinct for distrusting them as challengers to state secular authority. Reinhard suspected that this had been a dangerous oversight, since the Earth Church clearly thought of itself as a political power player.

For lack of better options, and now out of simple curiosity, Reinhard decided to attend one of the Earth Church’s worship meetings. He dressed inconspicuously, in jeans and a light colorblock jacket, and picked a church that he figured the bishop would not be at, one that was on the other side of the capital city from the relatively large cathedral. He made sure to bring some cash, in case they asked for donations, tucked his sidearm into the hidden holster underneath his jacket, and left his Alliance identification at his small apartment. 

The church he had picked was a relatively simple building, and it looked like it had once belonged to maybe some kind of medium sized retail store: the exterior was plain brick, and the interior was one large room. He was greeted at the door by someone wearing a long Earth Church sash, and handed a well-thumbed booklet full of prayer songs. He found a seat on one of the rickety folding chairs arrayed in a kind of hemisphere facing the front of the room. He sat in the back, but since the room was large and there weren’t that many seats, it didn’t offer him as much anonymity as he had hoped. The room filled up decently well, with people dressed mostly in Phezzani street fashion, though some wore the white emblazoned sash over their clothes. 

He got a good chance to look around at people before the service began. Everyone was at least in their early twenties, though ages ranged up to people probably in their late fifties, and he wasn’t the only one who had come in by himself; it seemed that most people had trickled in one at a time, and no one was really talking to each other, just exchanging nods and knowing smiles. Aside from that, there seemed to be no unifying feature of the group. It was more women than men, but the ratio wasn’t so unbalanced that Reinhard considered it extraordinary.

 The already quiet assembly hushed further as the celebrant walked in at the front of the room, taking up a place at the little lectern there. Everyone stood, and the celebrant led the whole group in some sort of chant. Reinhard thumbed through the booklet he had been given, trying to find it. The woman next to him smiled and showed him her page number, and he flipped to it, joining in so as not to appear too suspicious.

All told, the celebration was extremely boring. There was a lot of chanting, interspersed with frequent breaks for meditative silence and individual prayer, and a long, long sermon that Reinhard reluctantly paid attention to.

“We are formed from the bones of the Earth,” the celebrant said, raising his arms in his robes. “And because of this, we carry Her with us wherever we go. You look outside— no matter how much concrete and steel and glass is used to build a city, we still shape every planet we settle on into Mother Earth’s image. Without this memory of Her that we carry with us, in our blood, we would be nothing. So how is it that people can deny Her? How is it that people can say that there is no centrality of Earth in our lives?” 

It went on, the celebrant becoming more and more agitated and fired up as the sermon went on, until he finally had to stop for breath and a drink of water that he pulled out from underneath the lectern.

The most interesting part of the service was near the end. The celebrant held up a rather ornate cup of water. “Blessed Mother Earth, from You come all the waters of life. From Your waters we come, and to Your waters we will someday return. We drink and remember You.” The cup, and several others like it, was then passed around the room from hand to hand, everyone taking a sip. When it got to Reinhard, he wrinkled his nose and took a sip, avoiding the place on the cup where one woman’s lipstick had smudged. The water was warm and metallic tasting. He hastily passed the cup to the woman next to him.

“Blessed Mother Earth, all sustenance and life comes from You. Your works nurture us all the days of our lives.” The celebrant held up a loaf of slightly burned looking bread. “We eat and remember You.” He passed it around, and everyone took a chunk of it to eat. Reinhard was ripped off a piece when it got to him, then passed it along. It was, as far as he could tell, ordinary risen whole grain bread, though it looked and smelled vaguely like it had been cooked in a wood burning stove.

After that, there was just a little bit more chanting and meditation, and then the service was over. Reinhard hoped to escape out quietly, but the woman next to him, the one who had shown him what page to look at in his booklet, got his attention, and he was then trapped.

“I haven’t seen you around before,” she said. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Glad to be here,” Reinhard lied.

“What’s your name?”

“Kircheis,” he said, it being the first thought that came to his mind. “Siegfried Kircheis.”

She smiled. “Mary Castrelli,” she said, and extended her hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Reinhard shook her hand. He was suddenly feeling unusually warm, and he wanted to take off his jacket. 

“This is your first time coming to one of our services, right?” Mary asked.

“Er, yes.”

“May I ask what made you decide to come?”

“Someone gave me a pamphlet,” Reinhard said.

“Oh, excellent,” she said. “Would you happen to remember what it looked like? I like to get a sense of what messaging is most effective.” She laughed a little, as though to excuse the ridiculousness of the statement. 

“It was blue,” Reinhard said. “That’s all I remember. Sorry.”

“Oh, that’s fine. Don’t worry about it— I’m just curious about that type of thing. My day job is in advertising, so it’s always something I’m on the lookout for.” Again, that laugh. Reinhard wanted to get out. “If you don’t mind me asking, what do you do?”

“I’m a student.”

“Oh, what do you study?”

“Economics.”

“At PNU?” That was the Phezzan National University, not too far from where they were now.

“Yeah.”

“Good school for it,” Mary said. “You know, we have a student chapter there. Is there any particular reason you didn’t choose to attend it?”

“I didn’t know,” Reinhard said. “I guess I could.”

“Not that we’re not happy to have you here,” she said. “Wherever you’re most comfortable, of course. But I’d be happy to send a message to them to let them know you’re coming.”

“No, thanks,” Reinhard said. “You don’t have to go to the trouble.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. Siegfried Kircheis, you said, in the economics department at PNU?” She tapped her head as she spoke, as if she was drilling the words into her memory.

“I should go,” Reinhard said.

“Oh, no, you should stay! We’ve got some snacks. It would be nice for you to meet the rest of the parish.” She smiled and pointed across the room, where someone had set up a table with donuts and coffee.

“I really have an exam I need to study for…” Reinhard said. It was too warm in this room.

“Well, at least say hi to Father Jacob, and take a snack for the road,” she said, pulling him along by the sleeve of his jacket towards the snack table. The celebrant was there, speaking with several of the parishioners, but he looked up and smiled at Mary as she dragged Reinhard over. “Father Jacob, this is Mr. Kircheis, he’s new.”

“Oh, I’m so glad to have you here. How did you enjoy the service?”

“It was interesting, Father,” Reinhard said. As he said this, Jacob nodded at Mary, and she vanished away to go speak with someone else, leaving Reinhard relatively alone with Father Jacob.

“Did you have any questions? I’d be happy to answer them, if you did.”

Reinhard had many questions, but most of them couldn’t actually be asked. So he settled on one. He pitched his voice in such a way as to sound merely curious and somewhat confused, rather than prying. “I really got what you were saying, earlier, about how we terraform most of the places we live to look as much like Earth as possible,” Reinhard began, “but I’m a little bit confused. Do you actually want everyone to go back to living on Earth? It doesn’t seem like we would all, you know, fit.”

Father Jacob laughed. “No, we’re well aware that it’s an impracticality. We do encourage everyone to make a pilgrimage to Earth once in their lives, at least. Just like religions of Ancient Earth used to have their followers go on pilgrimage to the cradle of civilization there. Our goal is for all of humanity to remember our shared history, our common brotherhood as children of our Mother, Earth. Recognizing our brotherhood, uniting humanity under one flag, that’s the way to bring peace and healing to human hearts, no matter how far we travel from home.”

“Peace?” Reinhard asked. “You think that the war will end?”

“There will be peace within our lifetime, Mr. Kircheis,” Father Jacob said. “I know it.”

“What makes you so sure?” Reinhard asked.

“Just a feeling. But a strong one. Human struggles like this war can’t last forever.” 

“I don’t know if there’s been a prolonged peace in all of human history,” Reinhard said. “But I hope you’re right.”

“There have been plenty of peaceful times. And it’s our duty to bring them about. There was peace during the time of Rudolph, and for many years after, for example.” Reinhard wasn’t sure if he was praising Rudolph because he expected Reinhard’s imperial-sounding name to make that a good ‘in’, or if Father Jacob simply thought what he was saying was true. Regardless, Reinhard was sure that his distaste for Rudolph and the entire Goldenbaum dynasty would show a little too much on his face if he let Jacob keep talking about that, so he changed the topic.

“You know,” Reinhard said, “in the days before the Earth-Sirius war, the galaxy was united under Earth’s banner. What makes you think bringing that back would bring peace?”

“In those days, humanity was looking too far outwards. We were too concerned with expansion, and the Sirius rebellion was brought about by people not acknowledging the importance and centrality of Earth.”

“An interesting theory.”

“Do you have a different one? I’m happy to listen.”

“Well, it seems like from everything I’ve read on the subject, the question was an economic one—”

Jacob laughed. “Oh, Phezzani through and through.”

Reinhard wasn’t going to correct him. “And Earth was trying to draw too much wealth from the colonies into itself.”

“That’s true,” Jacob said. “The government of that time was concerned very much with material riches, which are curses on the mind.”

“Is that so?” Reinhard’s tone was dry.

“That’s been the hardest thing about attracting people to our church here on Phezzan, you know,” Jacob said, with what seemed like a genuine sigh. “The people in those ancient days had nothing on the levels of debauchery that take place here. Material wealth is the center of so much.”

“What kind of debauchery are you talking about?”

“Prostitution, sodomy, debasing of the flesh, worship of money, that sort of thing.” Reinhard resisted the urge to turn and leave, but his hands clenched a little, and he shoved them into his pockets. He had known, of course, that in many ways the Earth Church was more regressive than even the Goldenbaums, but it was mildly shocking to hear it read off like something no more consequential than a grocery list. Still, his tone was light when he responded.

“You have to admit, though, that Phezzan’s economic policies have made it the axis around which the galaxy turns.”

“It would like to think of itself that way, yes,” Jacob said. “But like I said, money is a false idol, barely even real.”

“What is real, then?”

“Bread, and water, and the spirit within them,” Jacob said without hesitation. 

Reinhard shook his head, almost laughing a little. Hadn’t he used almost that exact line on Bishop Degsby? “Maybe. It’s been very interesting to talk to you, Father Jacob, but I really should be going.”

“I understand, I understand,” Jacob said. “Young people, always on the run. Will I see you again next week?”

“Maybe,” Reinhard said. “I’ll think about it.”

“Our doors are always open. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you.” Jacob extended his hand, and Reinhard reluctantly shook it. “I hope I do see you again, Mr. Kircheis.”

Reinhard didn’t have a response to that, so he just nodded, and then turned and left before anyone else could trap him in conversation.

 


 

While his visit to the Earth Church had been interesting, to say the least,  it hadn’t really given Reinhard that much insight into how they operated, aside from giving him a sense of how devoted the church’s followers were. They seemed very devoted. He wondered exactly how much theological liberties each of the little churches took— were they united under a strict common doctrine? How much room was there for personal interpretation when delivering a sermon? Although he was curious, he was not inclined to continue attending Earth Church services until that question was answered.

Instead, he wanted to focus on the task at hand: finding out what the Earth Church was trying to gain by sending Ingrid to the Alliance specifically. He needed to know what their overall plan was within the Alliance. Even if their main goal was to install a favorable ruler within the Empire, there was no action within the Empire that did not also affect the Alliance, and the other way around. Despite the fact that the two sides were at war, there was a delicate balance within the galaxy, and while the eventual death of the kaiser would disrupt it, the idea of this third power attempting to manipulate the situation for their own gain put a bad taste in Reinhard’s mouth.

He had no love for the Goldenbaums and the machinations of the imperial court, but he at least felt that he understood them. 

Reinhard spent a while trying to pry into the church’s finances. Although he was on Phezzan, which was the place in the galaxy most concerned with finance, the Phezzani government was also far less concerned with recordkeeping than either the Alliance or the Empire. This was all by design, of course. The Phezzani government did not collect income tax, or keep records of its citizenry. It made enough money to function as a planetary government primarily through a flat sales tax on every transaction, rather steep property taxes, and, perhaps most importantly, by taking a cut every time currency was changed between Alliance dinars, Phezzani dollars, and Imperial marks. Of course, the government also loaned money to both sides of the conflict almost indiscriminately, but from what Reinhard understood of Alliance economics, it wasn’t as though Phezzan was making much actual money on those loans, and never really expected to be paid back— the Alliance could barely afford to service the debt— but it was more political insurance than anything. 

All of that was irrelevant to the fact that the church’s finances were completely obscure to Reinhard. He could estimate at least how liquid they were by checking how much they were paying to keep all their church buildings, but he had the suspicion that there was far more money than just that, which also meant that the money was coming from somewhere other than the pockets of their followers. Everyone at the service he had attended had given generously, but from Reinhard’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, even if the church was bleeding her followers dry, that wasn’t enough money to give them the kind of power-player confidence that Reinhard had felt they possessed. It could have been just confidence, or blind faith, but one didn’t end up with the mother of an heir to the Goldenbaum’s throne in their secret hands without real power. 

It was all extremely frustrating, and Reinhard found himself growing more annoyed with the whole task the more he poked into records that were designed to obscure the flow of money from one hand to another.

He decided to go back to the very basics, which was to watch who was coming and going from the church’s buildings. It was a simple enough matter to install tiny cameras on the street near the entrances to some of the most prominent church locations, and with that, he had a record of who was coming and going. He didn’t have names to match to faces immediately, but the High Commissioner’s Office had long been keeping record of who worked in high places on Phezzan, and so after a while, Reinhard began to notice some very suspicious patterns. For one thing, Bishop Degsby seemed able to come and go as he pleased from several government buildings, including the Landesherr’s office, which he visited several times. Second, a non-trivial number of low level employees of the Phezzan government seemed to be members of the church. They attended the weekly service, and many of them also attended nighttime meetings.

The third thing that Reinhard noticed was a familiar face, stopping very noticeably at the same bus stop in front of the church headquarters about once every few days, taking a seat in the shelter for a few minutes, and then getting on the bus. The man was young, with light colored hair and a friendly face, when he wasn’t glaring at Reinhard from across a party. He was never dressed in his imperial fleet uniform when he made these excursions, but Reinhard had a good memory for faces, and was sure it was the same man.

Reinhard asked around his office about the man.

“Oh, that’s Muller,” one of Reinhard’s coworkers, Sergeant Amanda Stalton, said. “Weird imperial first name. Neidhart, I think. He’s a lieutenant commander. Been here for years.”

“You’re familiar with him?”

She shrugged. “Sir, you get familiar with them. He’s been a fixture, though. I think this was his first post after getting out of their officer’s school. He started as a second lieutenant.”

“He’s been promoted decently, then.”

“Well, he’s pretty good at his job, I think,” she said. “Causes us a bit of trouble now and then.”

“Like what?”

“A few years ago there was a scuffle with someone trying to defect to us, with some sort of technology in hand. He made it very, very difficult.”

“How do you know it was him?”

“Because when we caught the ship that snuck into Alliance space through Iserlohn, trying to capture the ship the defector was on, the captain said that his nav routes had been sent by a junior officer on Phezzan. Process of elimination.”

“Interesting,” Reinhard said. “So he’s good at information gathering?”

“I think he’s jack of all trades over there. But really, I wouldn’t know. It’s not like I’ve spoken to him,” she said with a bit of a laugh.

“You said he graduated from their officer school?” Reinhard asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“Just curious when that was.”

“Probably 791,” she said, though the tone in her voice indicated she was very unsure. Reinhard thanked her and went to mull over what he had learned. It was good to be able to put a name to a face, and it was good to know that his counterpart was apparently fairly talented, so that Reinhard could be on the lookout.

The fact that this Muller was competent was a little messy, Reinhard thought, because it meant that he was probably not idly sitting outside the Earth Church for no reason. He was almost certainly picking up some sort of missive, which meant that the imperial fleet had an ‘in’ at the Earth Church.

Although this would probably be very bad for trying to sneak Ingrid off of Phezzan, it was a unique opportunity. The Alliance High Commissioner’s office had very little ability to see inside the Earth Church, or at least no infrastructure set up to do so, but they were well experienced at spying on the imperial fleet. Reinhard suspected that he might be able to get this Muller to do some of his work for him.

His first step was to figure out what type of information Muller was already getting from the Earth Church, during his visits to the bus stop. Reinhard went before Muller did, one of those days, and tried to see if there had been any cache left, but there wasn’t any that he could see. And Muller wasn’t ever meeting with anyone, either. He was always alone. 

Sitting inside the bus shelter, Reinhard looked around. There, across the street in the church headquarters building, on the third floor, there was a window cracked open just a hair. A bird had made its nest on the ledge, but there were no birds in it now. Something about it caught Reinhard’s attention though: something glittering just behind it, almost completely unnoticeable among the shine of the glass window. He squinted up at it, but then the bus was pulling up in its loud screeching way, and Reinhard got on, getting off a few stops later and walking back to the High Commissioner’s office. There must be some sort of transmitter hidden up there, he decided. Probably encrypted low-distance radio, something that wouldn’t be noticeable in among all the other signals whizzing around through the air, something that could only be picked up within the fifty meters or so between the window and the bus stop. 

Reinhard resolved to put up a listening device to catch the signals. Even if they were heavily encrypted and indecipherable, it would at least be confirmation of his theory. But that was not to be. When Reinhard did stick a receiving device in the shelter, Muller never showed up, and all his device heard was the normal chatter of internet signals and all the machines in the area going about their daily life. Because Muller hadn’t vanished from the imperial embassy (Reinhard checked) he realized that he had been found out. Muller had the area under surveillance just as much as Reinhard did, then, so of course he had noticed Reinhard snooping around his pick up point. Reinhard was caught between being annoyed at himself, annoyed at Muller, or vaguely amused at the situation.

It became less funny when Reinhard realized that he was being watched personally. He noticed cars parked on the street outside of his apartment that shouldn’t be there, and when he walked around the streets of the capital, he noticed that he had a tail more often than not. The tail was not Muller himself, though that would have been amusing; he was being stalked by a rotating cast of probably imperial enlisted men.

When he brought this up to his own CO, he was told not to worry about it, that the imperial people would get bored of him soon enough if he didn’t do anything to attract their interest further. This did somewhat put a damper on his communication with the Earth Church, though, and the situation with getting approval to bring Ingrid into the Alliance was dragging on, in a way that annoyed Reinhard. He was half tempted to write to his mother to see if she knew what the holdup was, but he obviously couldn’t do that.

Reinhard was feeling stymied by every route he went down. Financially, everything was an impenetrable mess. Politically, it was clear that the Earth Church had connections within the government of Phezzan, and designs on the imperial government (and probably the Alliance, though Reinhard had no proof of that). That was a whole lot of nothing. Speculation that left him no better off than when he had started.

The situation came to a boiling point one day when Reinhard left work early, his unit at the High Commissioner’s office having spent much of the day participating in a situational awareness training course that someone had come all the way from Heinessen to teach. It had been a waste of a day, and Reinhard had returned to his apartment in a bad mood. His mood only got worse when he found that his entire apartment had been ransacked while he was out. His personal computer was missing, and it was clear that the thief had left in a hurry, which meant that they had known Reinhard was returning home, which meant that it was not a thief but probably an imperial agent.

Reinhard stood with his hands on his hips in the middle of his studio, and addressed the room in the imperial language, using his general haughty tone, even though he had just had his apartment broken into, and he was somewhat disheveled from his day of training.

“Lieutenant Commander Muller,” he said. “I’m sure that you know by now that I do not keep anything other than my personal correspondence on my personal computer, and that my personal correspondence is of absolutely zero interest to you. Furthermore, you will notice that, although we share similar responsibilities, I have not, and do not intend to, break into your personal quarters. We may be enemies, but Phezzan would have you believe that we are living for the moment on a civilized planet, and I would hope that we can behave like civilized men. 

“In the interest of not causing too great of a disturbance to the detente which exists here on Phezzan, I will not elevate this issue if you would return my property to me. I will be at the park at 54th and Lexard tomorrow evening. I will see you there, Lieutenant Commander Muller.”

Then Reinhard packed a bag and left his apartment, getting a hotel room for the evening. 

True to his word, Reinhard did not tell his CO about the break in, though he probably should have. He waited at the park, sitting on a bench underneath a huge palm tree, looking keenly around the park. He was dressed in civilian clothing. After all, this was certainly not a sanctioned excursion. Still, he doubted he would get into any trouble about it.

He saw Muller before Muller saw him. Muller was also not dressed in his uniform, and was looking around warily, wearing a backpack and trying to pretend to be a student, though he was just a little too old for that to be convincing. He looked like he had come alone, though Reinhard was disinclined to believe that was actually the case. Reinhard let him stew for a moment before standing from his bench and raising his hand, attracting Muller’s attention.

Muller stiffened, then walked over. Reinhard sat back down before he got close, which was both a rude and less threatening posture. Muller was scowling when he arrived, and without speaking he held out the backpack to Reinhard as though it was covered in something repulsive. Reinhard raised an eyebrow.

“Let’s talk, Muller,” he said. “Take a seat.” He gestured to the bench beside him, and Muller hesitated, clearly wondering if it was some sort of trap. Reinhard didn’t take the offered backpack, so Muller finally did take a seat on the bench, sitting as far away from Reinhard as he could (which was not that far). He dropped the backpack on the ground in between them.

“What did you want to talk about?” Muller asked. “I hope you don’t think I’m stupid enough to tell you anything important.”

“No, I didn’t think that you were,” Reinhard said. He looked Muller over. Reinhard was much more comfortable in the situation than Muller was, which was amusing to him. They were on equal ground here, but Muller clearly felt that Reinhard was somehow in control. That suited Reinhard just fine. “If you were trying to recruit me, breaking into my house is a terrible way to go about it.”

“Recruit you?” Muller asked, sounding genuinely shocked and disgusted.

Reinhard looked at him, surprised. “I was told that you might try. For propaganda reasons.”

“Gods, no. You aren’t trying to re-defect, are you?” Muller asked, very wary.

Reinhard’s lips curled up in something that might have resembled a smile. “No.”

“Good.” Muller was relieved.

Reinhard raised an eyebrow in the hopes that Muller would elaborate. 

Muller did, seemingly unable to resist the urge to speak, filling the silence. “The amount of effort it took keeping your name OUT of the news means that there’s no propaganda value in it. Or not very much anyway. And I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you.”

“I did get the sense that re-defectors do not get much courtesy outside of their propaganda value. There was that man, Luneburg, a few years ago, wasn’t there?”

Muller shook his head. “You follow that sort of thing?”

“My sister is in the Rosenritter,” Reinhard said. “So that particular case was of interest to me.”

“Oh. Well, that was different.”

“Was it?”

“I would trust you even less than him.”

“Why?”

“You think I don’t know you’re an Earth Church puppet?” Muller asked.

This was so startling that Reinhard laughed. “I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t pretend you’re not in bed with them. They’re the ones who—“

“Who what?”

“They have a hand in all the newspapers here,” Muller said. “Your face was all over them in a way that sensationalism can’t explain, and when you get here, the first thing that you do is start meeting with them.” Muller shook his head. “I didn’t think you were stupid, but if you didn’t realize they’re manipulating you, then maybe you are.”

“I’m not being manipulated,” Reinhard said. “Besides, why would you care if the Earth Church has designs on Alliance officers?”

Muller narrowed his eyes. “I don’t,” he said, though he clearly did. Reinhard hadn’t expected an honest answer, so the fact that he had gotten anything out of Muller was a bonus.

“Well, if it makes you feel any better,” Reinhard said, “I am not a pawn of the Earth Church. I’m sure I don’t trust them any more than you do.”

“Sure.”

“Believe me or don’t,” Reinhard said, “but I have plenty of reason to be loyal to the Alliance, and none to be loyal to the Earth Church. But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“I’m not going to tell you anything,” Muller said. “This is me giving you back your personal property. Not some sort of information trade.”

“If we were having a real information trade, we would be meeting somewhere far less public than a park,” Reinhard said. “I assume there’s someone else watching us.”

Muller scowled. “No.”

“You’ll forgive me for not believing you.”

“And I didn’t put anything on your computer, either, if that’s your next question.”

“You will have to forgive me for not believing that one, either, since you clearly did bug my apartment.”

“You don’t have to believe me, but it’s true.”

“Did you enjoy going through my personal letters?”

“I apologize.”

Reinhard shrugged. “It’s not as though my mail isn’t already censored. But I had all my research on that computer, and I hadn’t backed it up in a while, so I’m grateful to have it back. Spares me some extra effort.”

“One of my coworkers is an avid reader of your website,” Muller said, somewhat amused. “I should tell him who writes it.”

“It’s funny,” Reinhard said, “I didn’t bother buying Phezzan net hosting for years, since it didn’t seem worth the expense, but now that I pay attention to my readership here, it seems like I should continue doing so.” Reinhard shook his head. “I suppose Phezzanis are interested in the Alliance economy perhaps more than the average Alliance citizen is. It makes sense.”

“Why do you write under a pen name?”

“Because I have no interest in making a name for myself as an economist,” Reinhard said. “It’s an open secret. I assumed you already had put that down in whatever little file you’re collecting on me.”

“And you use a woman’s name because…?”

“My sister suggested it.”

“That’s the kind of thing that does get a note jotted down in your file, I think,” Muller said.

“Then it’s lucky that what the imperial command thinks of me, a low level Alliance officer, has absolutely no bearing on my life,” Reinhard said. “I wouldn’t read too much into it, if I were you. It was a joke between a brother and sister when I was thirteen. If it was anything else, I wouldn’t be discussing it with you.”

“I see.”

“But now that you’ve pried into my personal life,” Reinhard said, “it’s only fair that I get to pry into yours.”

Muller frowned and didn’t say anything.

“You graduated from the Imperial Officers’ Academy in 791?”

“482.”

“So, yes.”

“Sure.”

“While you were there, did you know a Commander Leigh?”

Muller was startled. “Well, he was a lieutenant commander at the time, but yeah, I did. Why?”

“Just curious,” Reinhard said. “How did you know him?”

“I took an elective, Ancient Earth History, with him during my senior year.”

“Was he a good teacher?”

“I guess? Kinda weird, though.”

“In what way?”

“Well, I mean, he’s not… He’s not from the Empire.”

“Oh?”

“Like he would have been killed under Rudolph. Or at least sent to do labor.”

“Interesting.”

“You didn’t know that, but you’re asking about him?”

“I heard his name mentioned,” Reinhard said. “I am just curious.”

“Who mentioned him?”

“Commodore Reuenthal, when I was breaking into his ship, if you must know.”

Muller laughed. “Oh. Okay, then. He’s a rear admiral now, by the way.”

“Good for him. You know him?”

“Only by reputation. He graduated from the IOA before I got there.”

“Well,” Reinhard said, “if you should happen to run into your former teacher, please do tell him that Reinhard von Musel sends his regards to his favorite student.”

“His favorite student?” Muller asked. “Who’s that?”

“None of your business,” Reinhard said. “He’ll either know what to do with that message or he won’t.”

Muller frowned and looked about to say something else, but Reinhard was already done with the conversation. He picked up the backpack and stood. 

“Thank you for your time, Lieutenant Commander Muller. I doubt we will have the occasion to speak again.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Muller said, standing. 

Reinhard offered his hand to shake. Muller looked at him oddly for a second, and seemed about to refuse, then shook it.

 


 

More progress came a few days later, when Reinhard’s CO updated him on the situation with Ingrid. They had gotten permission to bring her to the Alliance, but the difficulty was in getting her there. There could be no military ships moving through the Phezzan corridor, aside from the tiny transport that brought new staff to the embassy and High Commissioner’s office, and that was heavily searched by the Phezzan police, for obvious reasons, going in both directions.

“You’ll have to put her on a merchant vessel,” Reinhard said, sitting in Blackwell’s office, eyeing the goldfish swimming around in the tank behind him.

“And just trust she reaches the Alliance unhindered?” Commodore Blackwell asked.

“Phezzani ships can be paid to keep her safe.”

“And somebody else could pay them more to not keep her safe.”

“True,” Reinhard said. Ingrid had been on Phezzan long enough that the idea that Muller had not yet found out about her was somewhat laughable. “Hire a merchant ship, replace the crew with our own.”

Blackwell raised an eyebrow. “And what type of crew do you think would make a good enough imitation of a bunch of Phezzani merchants?”

“When my sister was at the Academy, her roommate was from a merchant family. I’m sure you could find enough ex-merchants to put together a convincing crew.”

“Who would work well together, who would be able to keep Ms. von Roscher safe?”

Reinhard drummed his fingers on his leg for a second. “Do you know Rear Admiral Cazerne, on Heinessen?”

“Hah, we were in the same graduating class from the Academy,” Blackwell said. “Haven’t seen him in years.”

“He’s good at moving people around,” Reinhard said. “I think he’ll know who’s best for the job, if you can get him to take care of it.”

“You sound like you’re thinking of something.”

“Hunh? Oh, I suppose.”

“Tell me,” Blackwell demanded. “I’m curious.”

“When I spoke to Bishop Degsby, one of the reasons he said he had chosen me, was that Ingrid bore some small resemblance to my sister. I was simply thinking that it would be kind to her to be accompanied by people who were sensitive to her life situation, rather than total strangers.”

“Hunh,” Blackwell said. “Who is your sister again, remind me?”

“Lieutenant Commander Annerose von Müsel,” Reinhard said, which made Blackwell chuckle a little. “She’s the Rosenritter’s logistics officer.”

Blackwell raised an eyebrow at that. “The Rosenritter, eh?”

“Yes, sir,” Reinhard said.

“And you think that the Rosenritter would make a good accompaniment for her?”

“Well, at the very least, they all understand what it is like to flee the Empire. And they all speak the imperial language, which is all Roscher speaks.”

Blackwell nodded. “I’ll get in touch with Cazerne, though I’m not sure what strings he can actually pull. If he’s able, I’ll trust him to put together the best plan.”

“Yes, sir. I agree. And he is very good at pulling strings.”

“There will be some complications, though, no matter what we do,” Blackwell said, changing the topic with his tone of voice.

“Like what, sir?”

“The imperials have some sort of mole in the navigation office here on Phezzan. We found that out when they showed their hand trying to chase a defector a while ago. All merchant ships, and us too when we enter the Phezzan corridor, buy our nav routes from them. Whatever ship we use, they’ll know where we are, and that means the imperials will too.”

“What do you propose we do?”

“In an ideal world, I would say that we use our own mole within the nav office to plant false nav routes, and to get us untraced ones.”

“But we don’t live in an ideal world, I assume.”

“We do not. We don’t even have a mole within the nav office, much to my annoyance.”

“I see, sir.”

“So, we have a little bit of a problem.”

“I can ask the Earth Church to give us one of their routes,” Reinhard said. “They certainly pass through the corridor often enough, with pilgrims.”

“Don’t they usually use merchants and just book passage?”

“I believe they have a few ships of their own, or at least a few ships they call merchants but are really theirs.”

“I don’t know if I want to lean on them too much. Do you trust them?”

“Absolutely not, sir,” Reinhard said. “I trust that they do want Roscher in the Alliance, and would help us do that, but aside from that, not at all.”

“Good. I don’t either.”

“I hesitate to say this, because it feels very insecure, but I think we should just outright buy a few route options from the nav office, and pick one to use later. I don’t think it’s likely that the imperials will be willing to break through into Alliance space over this. They might know there’s a high status defector, but they haven’t made many moves thus far, so I don’t know if they’re going to.”

“If we can put soldiers in traders’ clothing, they can do the exact same thing and send a ship chasing ours.”

Reinhard bit his lip. “Then it would be one ship versus one ship, and if we fill our ship with competent people, I think it would be fine.”

“You would risk your sister doing that?”

“Sir, my sister is more competent than I am,” Reinhard said, which made Blackwell laugh.

“How generous of you to say.”

“I wouldn’t lie. At the very least, we are the same rank, and she is older and wiser than I am.”

“It’s good to hear that the youth aren’t discrediting age and experience.”

Reinhard’s smile was thin. “Yes, sir.”

“Still, I don’t love the idea of letting them chase us,” Blackwell said, getting back on topic.

“We probably have some time before we can actually muster a ship,” Reinhard said. “I’ll try to think of a solution.”

“You do that,” Blackwell said. “I’m glad you’re so willing to take responsibility for this problem you’ve dropped on our laps.”

Reinhard bit his lip in order to not respond to that.

 


Reinhard thought, very carefully, about how to get the imperial embassy off their scent. Of course, the imperials couldn’t track every ship coming in and out of Phezzan airspace going to the Alliance, there were hundreds, if not thousands, per day. But they would certainly take note of Ingrid the moment she traveled up the space elevator, as that was carefully watched, and since they probably already knew that there was someone trying to defect, they would probably have a ship at the ready. Reinhard would have liked to have put Ingrid on a shuttle and take off from the planet, but Phezzan was highly protective of their air quality, and hated all ships coming and leaving through the atmosphere, even the imperial types, which were designed to descend through the atmosphere.

What Reinhard wanted was some kind of huge distraction. He had a minor fantasy about burning the Phezzan Navigation Office to the ground, but it was nothing more than a fantasy. Instead, what he pried into, easier now that he was on Phezzan, was the situation in the Empire.

For all Reinhard had had trouble peeling apart the Earth Church’s finances, it was shockingly, almost laughably, easy to see what the major players in the Empire were investing in. Duke Braunschweig and Marquis Littenheim, the fathers of the two main prospects for the throne, were both quietly selling assets that they had been gathering. They were liquidating, trying to be prepared with cash, much of it in Phezzani dollars. He combed back through major merchant companies, saw those names disappear from their lists of major shareholders over the past several years. He saw a major weapons manufacturer’s stock price jump as they published that they had secured a major contract from an unnamed source. They would have named the source if it was an official purchase by either the Empire or the Alliance. He wondered what either of them were buying that went beyond what they had access to as high ranking members within the Empire’s fleet. Or, perhaps they were trying to supply private armies, drawn from the ranks of their own peasantry in their major holdings. Reinhard didn’t know, and couldn’t find out, but it was very, very clear that everyone in the Empire was holding their breath and waiting for a civil war.

Reinhard didn’t know who would come out on top, but he suspected that everyone in the imperial embassy would vastly, vastly prefer either Sabine von Littenheim or Elizabeth von Braunschweig to become kaiserin, backed by their fathers who were willing to play by the rules of the imperial court. The fact that the Earth Church was fostering a third contender was interesting, and bound to make the eventual power struggle that much bloodier. He didn’t know who was more vicious, the Braunschweigs or the Littenheims, but he figured that it was whichever one of them had been responsible for killing Prince Ludwig. That didn’t necessarily signal the winner of the conflict, but it was the opening salvo, and that person had shown, that they were not willing to play defensively. The eventual victor would probably come down to whoever gained the support of the fleet. 

It would be best for the Alliance if the Empire was embroiled in a long civil war, Reinhard thought. An open, honest contest for the crown would weaken the Empire against the Alliance, and internally. It would be a great opportunity, but one that would be lost if—

Reinhard made a decision. The next day, he went to see Bishop Degsby and Ingrid, to report the news. He had someone else arrange the meeting for him, and they met, not at Bishop Degsby’s residence, but at the large cathedral in the center of the capital. Reinhard had walked, and he didn’t think he had been followed. It was a cool evening, and the evening service was just letting out, so Reinhard had to push past and through the crowd of worshippers to get inside.

The inside of the cathedral was eerily dark, lit mostly by candlelight, and echoingly empty, now that the parishioners had gone. Ingrid was there, though she was wearing a black veil over her face to disguise her appearance, and she was kneeling in the front pew. There was no sign of Degsby.

Reinhard slid into the pew next to her, kneeling and draping his hands over the front of the pew. She didn’t turn to look at him, but she said, “Good evening, Lieutenant Commander.”

“Good evening, Fraulein,” Reinhard said. “Where is the bishop?”

“He had urgent business to attend to,” Ingrid said. “He might not be back.”

“I see.” Reinhard glanced around, trying to see if there were any hidden cameras or something, which he suspected there were, though he couldn’t see them through the gloom.

“You have news for me?”

“I do,” Reinhard said.

“Tell me.” She was a little more direct without the bishop present, which Reinhard thought was both interesting and an improvement.

“I’ve gotten permission to bring you into the Alliance,” he said. “We’re working out the details.”

“Oh.”

“You don’t sound excited.”

“I would prefer to return to Earth.”

“That isn’t exactly possible.”

“Through Her, all things are possible.”

Annoyed, Reinhard said, “Well, I’m not Mother Earth, so you’ll have to forgive—“

Ingrid laughed, a little bit of a bitter sound. “I am aware, Lieutenant Commander. I didn’t ask you to bring me to Earth. I am only saying what I prefer, because you asked.”

“Maybe someday you can go back.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Ingrid said. She looked up at the candle-lit altar. “You may look like a god, but you are only a man.”

Reinhard shook his head, too used to strange remarks about his appearance to be embarrassed. “I’ve never seen a god move anything in the world, so I would much prefer to be a man. Besides, my sister looks better than I do.”

“I should like to meet her.”

“If you’re lucky, you will,” Reinhard said. “I suggested that she and her regiment escort you off Phezzan.”

Ingrid nodded and was silent.

“May I ask you something personal?”

“Yes.”

Reinhard hesitated. “Who killed your husband? Was it Braunschweig or Littenheim?”

Ingrid laughed again, an even hollower note, and didn’t answer.

“Do you know who killed him?” Reinhard asked.

“Yes,” Ingrid said.

“Will you tell me?”

“Why do you need to know?”

“I might need to make a bargain to get you out of here,” Reinhard said. “I think it would be useful for me to know.”

Ingrid tilted her head back. “You won’t like the answer.”

“Did the Earth Church kill him?” Reinhard asked.

“No,” she said. “Though I would forgive you for thinking that they did.”

“Who killed him?”

“I did,” Ingrid said. She turned to Reinhard for the first time, reached out one finger, poked him in his chest, right above his heart. “I stabbed him. In our bedroom. With his own knife. Right there.” 

Reinhard was so shocked that he didn’t have a response for a second. This information put a completely different spin on the inevitable civil war. If both sides believed that the other was the one that had taken the opening strike, both sides would feel like they were fighting on the defensive. 

“And you lived,” Reinhard said. “And no one suspects you.”

Ingrid’s hand dropped back to clutch the pew. “Part of me lived. Part of me died. A very dear… friend… of mine sacrificed her standing to save me. The Earth Church protected me. I’m very grateful to their patronage.”

Reinhard nodded. “My sister will like you.”

Ingrid sounded a little less sad when she said, “Does that help you?”

“I don’t know,” Reinhard said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. But be prepared to leave.”

“I have nothing to hold me here,” Ingrid said. “I’m a traveller, passing through.”

“That’s what everyone is on Phezzan,” Reinhard said.

“Perhaps,” Ingrid said.

“I don’t know if I will see you again, Fraulein,” Reinhard said. “But I’m glad I could speak with you.”

She nodded. “Go in peace,” she said.

Reinhard nodded and left, scooting out of the pew and walking back down the aisle of the church. He glanced back at her once, and she hadn’t moved at all, still staring contemplatively up at the altar. He shook his head and turned away.

He didn’t know why the bishop hadn’t come. Perhaps it was manipulation, of some sort. He could probably understand that Reinhard liked Ingrid better than him, and that Reinhard thought Ingrid was a merely a tool and not a dangerous actor in her own right. Removing the bishop from the equation might have Reinhard let his guard down. Reinhard would have agreed that he liked Ingrid significantly more than he liked Bishop Degsby, but he was intelligent enough to be aware that underestimating Ingrid von Roscher could be a fatal mistake. 


Reinhard had spoken to Commodore Blackwell, and had gotten permission for this excursion. He didn’t think that Blackwell had gotten permission from anyone, but Reinhard was going to turn a blind eye to that fact. It suited him fine, if the High Commissioner’s office on Phezzan was able to operate a little bit independently.

Reinhard was going camping. He had made it very clear that that was what he was going to be doing. He had even posted on his blog about his weekend plans, on the bottom of a post that was designed to catch Lieutenant Commander Muller’s attention.

 

The birthday of a very good friend of mine is coming up soon, so to amuse her I’m taking a break from my more serious content, and discussing a subject that’s of personal interest to both of us. Many imperial expats live within the Alliance, and while life is undoubtedly better there, there are still some comforts of home that just aren’t quite the same on the other side of the galaxy. One’s favorite type of beer, or specialty sausage that you just can’t find within the Alliance. Because of this heavy demand, there exists quite a flourishing market for imitation goods, companies that manage to operate within both the Alliance and the Empire, and, of course, those expensive goods ferried directly from the Empire into the Alliance. Although imitation goods and cross-national brands are worthwhile discussions in their own right, today I’d like to talk about the complicated supply chain that can bring almost any type of product across the border. 

Let’s take, for example, a rather innocuous treat: the elderflower shortbread cookie, made by the brand Tennshausen.

[...]

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little exploration of the subject.

No new posts this week, because I’m going on a camping trip. Camping was one of my favorite things to do when I was a student, though of course the campsites on Phezzan are quite different from anywhere I’ve been before. I’m hoping a friend will meet me out there, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to get away from work. If not, I’ll just have a relaxing few days wandering around, talking to myself. Should be a peaceful vacation.

 

Reinhard suspected that Muller would understand very clearly that he was asking to meet. 

Reinhard had rented a cabin, something he normally wouldn’t do, but he didn’t want to buy all new camping gear for this particular, single excursion, and he was honestly glad that he had, because the weekend turned out to be a torrentially rainy one. Reinhard didn’t mind the rain, sitting under his cabin’s awning, but he was rather amused to see Muller pull up in an unmarked car, then get out and immediately get drenched. Reinhard couldn’t see if there was anyone else in the car with him, but he didn’t really care. Although this was a sanctioned expedition, Reinhard didn’t have any backup himself. Blackwell hadn’t wanted to commit that much.

Reinhard stood and waved Muller over, and he came, dashing through the puddles on the ground and getting muddy up to the ankles.

“You could have picked a more civilized place to meet,” Muller said. “What do you want?”

“Come in,” Reinhard said, holding the door of the cabin open. Muller looked at it with some suspicion. “All of Phezzan is a civilized place, in case you had forgotten.”

Reluctantly, Muller entered the building, and found its hewn wood interior to be exactly as bland and unthreatening as Reinhard had intended it to be. Reinhard sat down on the edge of the camp bed, waving for Muller to take a seat on one of the chairs near the stove.

“What do you want?” Muller asked again, crossing his arms.

“I believe we said that if we were going to exchange information, we’d do it in somewhere other than a public park.”

“So you’ve picked a national park instead of a city one,” Muller said. “I never agreed to exchange anything.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Reinhard said. “I’m trusting you here.”

Muller narrowed his eyes. “This feels like a trap.”

“If I was going to trap you, I’d be a lot more subtle about it.”

“Then please explain.”

“I’m not playing a fourth dimensional game,” Reinhard said. “I’m going to tell you something that you will want to hear, so that you do not cause me problems.”

Muller pursed his lips. “I make no promises.”

“I’m well aware.” Reinhard fiddled with his locket absentmindedly. “I know you have a mole in the Phezzan navigation office.”

“Do you expect me to confirm or deny that?”

“No,” Reinhard said. He didn’t look directly at Muller, looking instead out over his shoulder through the window, where the rain was coming down in sheets. “And I am sure that even without your mole in the nav office, somebody on your team pays very close attention when a shipping company pays for several different routes at once, on short notice. I’m sure that sets off a bunch of red flags in your system.”

Muller was silent.

“And I’m sure that you would usually ignore it, except for the fact that you are vaguely aware that there’s some sort of important person trying to sneak into the Alliance.”

“I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“I’m aware.” Reinhard paused for a second. “And I’m also aware that you have a merchant ship that arrived on the fastest possible route from Odin, one that has only ever visited Phezzan once in the last five years, and that has suddenly put in a bid for travel routes at the nav office. I’d hazard a guess that whatever nav routes that ship receives, they won’t actually use. They’ll be stalking my merchant ship. That is, if you don’t stop your imperial refugee before they even make it up the space elevator.”

“And so what?” Muller asked.

“So, Lieutenant Commander, we are at a bit of an impasse,” Reinhard said. “You are just as poised to try to stop my refugee as we are to get them safely into the Alliance.”

“Yes, that would be the point of this war,” Muller muttered. “To be ready for anything you do.”

Reinhard raised an eyebrow. “No, the point is to win. And I would guess that in this engagement, we would win.”

Muller was silent again, which made Reinhard smile a little grimly. It had been a bit of a bait to get Muller to reveal the capabilities of the ship they had sitting in orbit, but Muller was smart enough not to rise to the provocation.

“If you’re so sure of that, then why are you here?” Muller asked after a second of uncomfortable waiting.

“Because, on Phezzan, we are not at war,” Reinhard said. “We’re friendly neighbors. And if Phezzan finds out that there’s been armed conflict, soldiers passing back and forth on unmarked ships through their corridor, you and I would both be in far bigger trouble than one imperial refugee is worth.”

“Destroying your ship could be made to look like an accident.”

Reinhard raised an eyebrow. “Could it? Because if I were you, I don’t know if I’d be willing to play that game of chicken with the Alliance. We have enough evidence to condemn you.”

“That would be showing your hand.”

“No, our perfectly legitimate merchant ship, carrying no weapons— which any Phezzani investigator could determine based on the debris— was maliciously targeted by the imperial fleet in disguise, because they had a suspicion that this perfectly legitimate vessel was harboring a defector. And harboring defectors, and letting defectors pass through in both directions, are things that Phezzan allows— and even likes. It would not look good for you.”

“And if your ship destroyed ours?”

Reinhard smiled. “Well, I am not saying that we would, because it would be a headache, and, as I said, our perfectly legitimate merchant vessel is unarmed, but even if we did— a perfectly legitimate merchant vessel has the right to defend itself from pirates. And what looks more like a pirate than being stalked through the Phezzan corridor, by a ship that is very off their allotted course?”

“No one would believe a word of that.”

“Perhaps,” Reinhard said. He crossed his legs, the picture of nonchalance. Muller was still slightly damp from the rain, and very tense. “Perhaps not.”

“Just tell me what you want. I didn’t come all the way out here for you to dangle implications in front of me.”

“I want you to leave my refugee alone,” Reinhard said. “That’s all.”

“I’m not going to just say that I will,” Muller said.

“I know. Which is why I had you come all the way out here. I’ll give you something in exchange.”

“What?”

“Information,” Reinhard said.

“What kind?”

“First, I’ll tell you who our refugee is, which should hopefully convince you that they’re not worth bothering. Second, I’ll give you something I know about… Well, you told me once that I was an Earth Church puppet. Not that it matters what you think of me, but I have some information to share with you about them.”

“It’s not my job to care about the Earth Church.”

“It’s not?” Reinhard said, his voice flat, disbelieving Muller completely. “Yet you spent so much time trying to dig into their business. You even had a mole in their hierarchy. Impressive.”

“Not really,” Muller said, and there was a story there, but Reinhard knew he wasn’t going to get it. “Tell me who your defector is.”

“The wife of the late Prince Ludwig,” Reinhard said, which caused Muller to flinch back in surprise.

“She’s supposed to be dead.”

“She’s not. She’s on Phezzan, and has been for some time. I’m not sure how long. She’s been shuffled around between various church safehouses, I think.”

“Hunh. And what’s she doing trying to defect?”

“She’s a rather unwilling passenger,” Reinhard said. “Actually.”

“One doesn’t fake their own death and flee across the galaxy by happenstance,” Muller said.

“Oh, you’re right, but she would very much prefer to return to Earth, unless all her protestations are some kind of elaborate plot.”

“Then why don’t you let us take her and send her back to Earth?”

Reinhard fiddled with his locket for a second. “I get the feeling that the moment she becomes useless to the Earth Church is the moment she stops breathing,” Reinhard said.

“And why do you care?”

“The Earth Church was not wrong in picking me to be their little errand boy,” Reinhard said. He tugged on the chain of his locket and looked out the window. “They were correct in assuming that I would have enough sympathy for her situation to help her survive getting into the Alliance.”

“Why do you have sympathy for her?”

“None of your business,” Reinhard snapped. Muller was taken aback.

“Fine. And what does the Earth Church want with her?”

“The same thing that anyone would want from the mother of a child with a valid claim to the imperial throne,” Reinhard said. “She would make a fine puppet regent for her son, and then a fine influence on her son, once he came of age.”

Muller scoffed. “Erwin Joseph has about as much chance of becoming the kaiser as you do. If he becomes a contender, Duke Braunschweig will kill him.”

“What makes you say that?”

“He killed Ludwig.”

“You don’t believe it was Littenheim?”

“What do you know?” Muller asked, suddenly and rightfully suspicious.

“I’m just curious as to why you don’t think it was Littenheim.”

“I’ve met Duke Braunschweig, once. I think he’s… He’s just more likely, that’s all.”

“Interesting.” Reinhard leaned forward a little. “I’ll make a note that he’s favored, for when your eventual civil war comes.”

Muller scowled. “That’s just my opinion. You’re acting like you know something.”

“I do.”

“What?”

“Braunschweig didn’t kill Ludwig.”

“Who did?”

“The Earth Church,” Reinhard said. “Obviously.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“They’re going to let Braunschweig and Littenheim fight it out, and then when they have depleted both of their resources, the Earth Church is going to strike a deal with Phezzan, or something, that will give them the power to swoop in and restore their own brand of order to the Empire. I don’t have the details, but if you look into it you’ll see that it’s true. You have your mole in the church. You know as well as I do that they’re deep in with the Phezzan government.”

“Then why did they kill Ludwig, if they just want to put his son on the throne?”

Reinhard looked at Muller like he was stupid. “Because they need the Empire to be weak in order to seize it. They had to destroy the clear line of succession in order to do that. And Ludwig would have been impossible to use as a puppet the way his son can be.”

“Fuck,” Muller said. “Fuck.” He ran his hand through his hair, then dropped it to his lap. “How do I know you’re not lying?”

“Because I’m half hoping that you’ll tell me there’s some equivalent conspiracy within the Alliance that you’ve found out about,” Reinhard said, which made Muller laugh a little. Reinhard was lying, of course, but the core of truth was still there.

“I am not nearly so free with information.”

“It’s tactical for me to tell you this,” Reinhard said. “Even if you just look at it from a perspective to see where I benefit— the Empire being united with Phezzan against the Alliance would be extremely dangerous for us. I don’t want that to happen via the Earth Church’s machinations.”

“And what are you hoping I will do with this information?”

“For one thing, let us have Ingrid von Roscher. She’s harmless by herself, and she’s probably less trouble to you in the Alliance than she would be if you captured her and put her on trial.”

Muller nodded, though Reinhard could tell it was a thinking nod, rather than one of agreement. “And Braunschweig and Littenheim?”

“Internal imperial politics are not my problem. I hope the two of them kill each other and end the Goldenbaum line for good,” Reinhard said, which was something of a lie, since he would prefer to have a hand in their destruction. “I’ve given you the information; it’s your choice as to what to do with it.”

“And why did you decide to betray the Earth Church?”

“Because I don’t like them,” Reinhard said. “And I am not their puppet. I do hope you will keep my name out of your mouth when you share this information, however.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Muller said. He was thinking hard, distracted a little. “This will need to be handled delicately.”

“You seem competent enough.”

Muller frowned. “I don’t know what you have to gain by saying that.”

“It’s the truth,” Reinhard said. “You should defect to the Alliance before your civil war makes a mess of your fleet.”

Muller laughed. “Gods, you could be more subtle about it. I’m not going to do that.”

“You’re loyal to the Goldenbaums? Even to whichever child will end up on the throne in a few years?”

“It would be extremely stupid of me to say no.” Muller shook his head. “I have no reason to defect.”

“If you change your mind in a few years, I would be happy to have you work for me,” Reinhard said.

“Oh, right, I forgot you’re full of yourself, too,” Muller said. “Do you have anything else to say?”

“No,” Reinhard said. “Until next time, Muller.”

“I really hope there doesn’t need to be a next time, Müsel.”

Reinhard’s smile was somewhat predatory.

“By the way,” Muller said, reaching into his pocket. “I passed on that message for you.” He tossed a data stick to Reinhard, who caught it, his heart beating exceptionally fast. Muller saw the expression that was clear on his face. “There’s my half of the information trade. But don’t expect me to be a courier for you.”

Reinhard ignored him, and Muller left, the door of the cabin slamming shut in a gust of wind. Reinhard hastily plugged the data stick into his phone and opened the single file contained on it.

 

Dear Captain von Leigh,

I doubt you remember me, but I took your class on Ancient Earth History a few years back. It’s probably very strange for me to be contacting you, but I’ve been working in the Embassy on Phezzan since I graduated, and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing your name mentioned a few times.

In particular, I met this man at a party who said that he had once been aboard Rear Admiral von Reuenthal’s flagship, and knew you, or knew of you, in any event. He asked me to tell you that he sends his regards to your favorite student. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch his name, but I’m hoping that you understand more of what he was talking about than I did.

I hear that you’ve left the IOA. I’m surprised— I thought you were a good teacher, at least. How is working for Duke Braunschweig? If I’m honest with you, that is not a staff posting that I would have chosen for myself haha. Congratulations on your promotion, though.

I hope you are doing well.

Very respectfully,

Lt. Cmdr. Neidhart Muller

IOA Class of 482, Strategic Warfare Division

 

Muller!

Of course I remember you. If I’m not mistaken, you wrote your final paper on the Spanish Civil War, which I quite enjoyed. Interesting choice of topic, though I believe I said that you could have used a narrower focus. I was too harsh in grading back then. Well, all water under the bridge.

I can’t believe people are talking about me on Phezzan. I would honestly prefer that to not be the case. Working in the Embassy must be an interesting position. I’m slightly jealous, though perhaps not if you’re busy around there, which I suspect you must be.

As far as the man you encountered at a party, yes, I do believe I know who you’re referring to. I… hope... that you do not have too many reasons to come into contact with him, but if you should see him again, you may let him know that his message was received very happily, and that, quote, “I’m doing what you said to.”

Speaking as your former teacher, Muller, I would advise you to stay out of it. For your own sake. I’m sure you understand very well the reasons why. I appreciate whatever instinct moved you to be a messenger, but— you know what? I have no room to talk.

I wish I had had you in my strats course, but you had already graduated by the time I started teaching it. I would have referred you to one of my core principles, which is to carefully choose what engagements you fight. The same principle can be broadly applied.

I’m still talking about it, aren’t I?

As for my promotion, some would say it’s undeserved, and some would say it’s long overdue. You’re right that I miss teaching at the IOA. I liked it. Braunschweig isn’t so bad, if you know how to deal with him, and I think his daughter is delightful. Takes after her mother rather than her father, which I think is something of a blessing.

I hope you are also doing well. Another piece of teacherly advice: Phezzan is a unique place; I’m sure you don’t need to be told to learn as much as you can while you’re there.

V/r,

Captain Hank von Leigh